Twenty-one years ago tonight, an irreparable hole was torn into my heart. Twenty-one years ago tonight, I lost the one person a teenage girl should never lose: her mother. For the first time in twenty-one years, I didn’t have my annual holiday breakdown. For the first time in twenty-one years, I didn’t breakdown in the shower this morning. I think I may have, finally, reached a place of acceptance although I’m not sure how and when that happened.
I will spare you most of the ugly details of her illness. If you’ve watched a loved one lose a cancer battle, you already know. If you haven’t, you’re blessed. She had aggressive, invasive breast cancer that is still tough to find and treat today. She was improperly diagnosed and had mammograms misread. One doctor, an arrogant son-of-bitch, made a notation in her records indicating that he thought she was faking, yes faking, her complaints. That notation made it impossible for her to get a proper diagnosis until we went to the Mayo Clinic. By then, it was too late. It was already stage 4 cancer and spreading. That was March 1991, and by January, she was gone.
I was 16, just months shy of my 17th birthday. I had seen things no teenager should have to see. I was also deeply, deeply in denial right to the end. I made my first Christmas dinner that year and then spent the day in her bed talking. I wish I could remember what we talked about that day. She had a doctor’s appointment the next day and ended up hospitalized. She never came home.
It was New Year’s Day before we saw her again because either my brother, myself, or probably both, had been sick with colds. I remember little of that visit. She couldn’t keep anything in her stomach and didn’t want us to see her sick so we spent most of the visit in the cafeteria. I didn’t understand, but she did, that it was the beginning of her body shutting itself down. We left at the end of visiting hours, and I was the last one out of the room. She stopped me as I walked out the door to tell me she loved me. They were the last words we ever spoke to each other. (Here come the tears. Here comes the physical pain. I didn’t make it twenty-one years without breaking.)
The hospital called early the next morning, right after my dad left for work. In the pre-cell phone world, they had to wait until he got to work to talk to him. The news wasn’t good. Mom had slipped into a coma over night and was in and out of consciousness. If we were going to see her, we had to go soon. My brother and I chose not too. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t see it. Her brother and sister were there. Several of my adult cousins were there. I was called selfish for not being there by her sister. My future husband brought us dinner that I couldn’t eat and stayed until the weather turned and he had to drive home.
My dad didn’t call. He just came home. I’ll never forget the sound of the car door closing. His shoes crunching on the fresh snow. The ashen color on his face as he walked in the door. I remember screaming. I remember him calling my boyfriend to try to settle me. I remember my brother, just 14, looking lost. I remember little else of the next few days.
I’ll spare the details of planning the funeral. My panic attack at the funeral home on the day of the funeral. I’m not sure I can stand to relive those details. I’ve almost relived too much already.
I’ve celebrated 21 birthdays. 21 Christmases. 21 New Years. I’ve gotten married. I’ve had 4 children. I graduated from high school and college. A million celebrations. A million heartbreaks. I’ve needed her hundreds of times. Thousands. But I survived.
My life path permanently altered that night. I am the woman I am today because of this loss. The hole in my heart will never heal. I’ve learned to cope with the pain, but it’s never gone. I live in fear of cancer because sickly, ironically, it took my dad just 4 1/2 years later in late 1996. I try to live my life fully, and as I am getting older and closer to her age, I find I’m pushing myself harder to achieve, to experience life. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s me.